The myth of personal liability: Who pays when bivens claims succeed

James E. Pfander, Alexander A. Reinert, Joanna C. Schwartz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents, the Supreme Court held that federal law creates a right to sue federal officials for Fourth Amendment violations. For the last three decades, however, the Court has cited the threat of individual liability and the burden of government indemnification on agency budgets as twin bases for narrowing the right of victims to secure redress under Bivens. In its most recent decisions, Ziglar v. Abbasi and Hernandez v. Mesa, the Court said much to confirm that it now views personal liability less as a feature of the Bivens liability rule than as a bug. But, to date, there has been no empirical examination of who pays when Bivens claims succeed. This Article studies the financial threat that successful Bivens claims pose to federal officers and their employing federal agency. Information supplied by the Federal Bureau of Prisons in response to a Freedom of Information Act request identified successful Bivens actions over a ten-year period; in the vast majority of cases (over 95%), individual defendants contributed no personal resources to the resolution of the claims. Nor did the responsible federal agency pay the claims through indemnification. The data suggest, in short, that recent hostility to Bivens litigation rests on a perceived threat of personal liability that is much more theoretical than real. The data also raise important questions about the adequacy of existing constitutional remedies and the manner in which the Department of Justice exercises its settlement authority under the Federal Tort Claims Act and the Judgment Fund.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)561-640
Number of pages80
JournalStanford Law Review
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2020
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Law

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